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Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - March 29, 2013

Pleasanton's 'Music Man'

Don Lewis is world-renowned for building, playing high-tech instruments

by Jeb Bing

Pleasanton music celebrity Don Lewis is probably best known for designing, building and then playing on synthesizers that blend organ and other instrument sounds into acoustic sounds that can fill a concert hall, as he has done on many occasions.

His work as a composer, singer and musical artist in known throughout the U.S. and Canada, where he performs and also works with others in developing better sounds for ever-changing tastes.

In January, he played twice a day during the three-day National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) trade show at the Anaheim Convention Center, attended by more than 90,000 musicians, manufacturers and composers. On Feb. 9, he stood with his colleagues Kakehashi and Dave Smith when they received their special awards at the Grammy show in Los Angeles for the 30th anniversary of their development of the MIDI, an acronym for Musical Instrument Digital Input. A year ago, he was honored in Amsterdam for his worldwide performances on the Hammond organ, still one of his favorite instruments.

In fact, it all started with the Hammond, a technology-advanced organ introduced in 1934. Organs have actually been around for centuries in various forms, some powered by water wheels in churches where they were played. Just a few generations ago, organs, pumped by foot pedals similar to the squeezing efforts of accordion players, could be found in schools and homes. Hammond electrified the organ and added the sounds of other instruments, from piano to flute, with amplifiers to extend the sound to wider audiences. Hammond organs give notes a very smooth transition from one level to another.

Lewis began playing the piano and organ as a teenager in Dayton, Ohio, and later at Tuskegee Institute where he joined with the college chorus, including performances at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s freedom rallies. Frequently asked to play at trade shows, Hammond executives heard him belting out jazz, gospel and soul music that they hadn't dreamed possible on their organ, and hired him as a representative for their products at shows worldwide.

During the early 1970s with multi-setups, Lewis played several organ keyboards at a time, excited by the "surround sounds" from organs that in some cases could only play one note at a time. Depending on the music and the sound desired, his arms were often stretched out to the limit to just reach the keyboards around him.

Lewis decided to design a keyboard console that would allow better access as a synthesizer with multiple keyboards for better performance. He drafted his ideas on paper and, with the help of technologically-savvy friends Richard Bates and Armand Pascetta, his dreams came true with the construction of LEO, an acronym he chose for his new "large electronic orchestra."

"This new console design incorporated three keyboards and a pedal keyboard that put the playing surfaces in front of me," Lewis said. "The syntheses and audio-mixing controls were on the top and side panels."

As he performed at concerts, churches and night clubs, including with San Francisco's Merola Opera's performance of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus, he wanted people to see all the circuitry. So he encased LEO in a clear acrylic case. During performances, the stage light accented the edges which added an intriguing and dynamic visual ambiance.

"LEO had a sound that was ethereal and dynamic, with a palette of unique sounds that were very soulful as I played a wide range of music," Lewis said. "Because of the nature of the analog sound and the synthesizers and the ability to create, manipulate and play the sounds in real time, I found it an incredible instrument to play."

Lewis has performed at concerts worldwide and has appeared as a soloist with many symphony orchestras. As a studio artist, he has worked with such greats as Quincy Jones, Sergio Mendez and Michael Jackson.

He has also created scores for films and audio productions including the award-winning "Rainbows End" and "Were You There" series featured on PBS. In addition, he has composed music for commercial videos for such clients as Nissan, Pacific Telephone and Digital Equipment Corp.

Also a teacher, Lewis has taught courses on the history of gospel music, multimedia and synthesizer technology at the UC Berkeley Extension, San Jose State University and Stanford University. He also combines his love of children, education and music with performances delighting students, teachers and school administrators here in Pleasanton, at the Firehouse Arts Center, and in performances across the U.S. and Canada with his inspiring musical assemblies.

Local Rotarians have a special benefit since Lewis also plays during every Thursday noon luncheon of the Rotary Club of Pleasanton at Hap's Steak House. His wife of 35 years, Julie, who serves as business manager for Don Lewis Music, is this year's president of the club.

For those in Southern California over this Easter weekend, Lewis will perform an Easter Vigil at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at St. Aidans Episcopal Church in Malibu.

Don Lewis recording are available on iTunes and through his website at donlewismusic.com where more information also is available.

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